What is More Foundational: The Bible, or Faith?

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

I try not to get hung up on theology with fellow atheists. That is, I don’t really enjoy arguing with other atheists over which doctrines were more theologically correct than others, such as Catholicism versus the teachings of the Southern Baptists, for example. After all, we already agree that the religious beliefs are wrong. It doesn’t seem to make sense which of the beliefs are the correct wrong beliefs. I could see the appeal some people have in it, much like how Star Wars fans might argue over canonical differences in the Expanded Universe or which superhero film adaptation was closer to the original comics. But for me, I have other things to think about.

That being said, I’ve also pushed against the idea of holding all Christians to Biblical literalism. Atheists will often make the assumption that a Christian must take every word in the Bible literally. This is not always the case, as there’s a wide variety of beliefs between denominations. Plenty of the more liberal denominations (as well as Catholicism) do not adhere to things like Young-Earth Creationism, for example.

Really, it appears that all Christians pick-and-choose to some extent what teachings of the book they value. It’s obvious throughout the Bible that it is not a good thing to be rich, yet there are plenty of prominent politicians, millionaires, and televangelists who claim to hold strongly to their faith. Nobody today follows the Old Testament teachings such as bans on shrimp and mixed fibers. And really, sometimes Christians are forced to pick and choose as there are teachings that appear to conflict with each other. The important part, though, is that any given religion is not simply just what the Holy Book says. Besides holy books, religions are made up of doctrines, rituals, church hierarchies, teachings, and traditions that didn’t originate anywhere in the text.

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[Image: a wooden crucifix lays upon the pages of a Bible]

However, I’m biased. I didn’t come out of a fundamentalist background as many of my peers did. They were taught that every part of the Bible happened literally as it was stated, keeping in mind that some parts are obviously poetry or parable, and should be treated as such. Each command in the book should be followed to the letter. I hold a fantastic admiration for my fellow atheists who got out of the fundamentalist mentality, where they were taught that they couldn’t question a single word of the book. I cannot put myself in their position, and I can’t say for certain that I would have been able to escape from the effects of their indoctrination had I been born in their situation.

However, I could not ever merely take the Bible at face value, and I definitely held some parts as certainly false. People tell me that I was being more intellectually dishonest at the time, and I hope to get into that in a future post, but I don’t think I was. I knew as a child that dinosaurs had existed 65 million years ago, and there was a big bang event that “started off” the universe long before that. I could not take the words of the Bible at face value, at least in Genesis, based on my knowledge. From a very young age I began to see the early parts of the Bible as either folk tales from early tribes that would eventually become Jews, or as records of laws that these ancient people attributed to their god (whether it actually came from a god or not). I simply couldn’t reconcile the history of the Bible with the natural history of the universe, nor could I take seriously many of the laws against people such as gay folk and women, I could not agree that they were moral in any sense.

This is puzzling for my ex-fundamentalist atheist friends, as well as never-Christians who make the assumption that whatever the Bible says goes for every Christian. After all, Christians must have a foundational source for the beliefs that they hold. It’s necessary for Christians to believe the gospel stories, so what justification should they have for accepting that part of the Bible but nothing else? Christians rely on the word of their god, which apparently manifests in the form of the holy book. After all, “Man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Furthermore, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). While it may be circular, the Bible supports inerrancy, since “the words of the Lord are flawless” (Psalm 12:6) and “Every word of God proves true.” (Proverbs 30:5). It wouldn’t be very coherent for a Christian to accept certain parts and reject others, therefore it makes sense that the Bible is the foundation of Christianity.

This has problems, though. How can Christians justify following the Bible in the first place? What reason do Christians have for accepting that the Bible is the true word of their god?

There are a few approaches that Christians often take to justify the Bible as foundational. One approach is through evidential means. They will often try and tie the Bible to historical events, and though many of their claims are questionable, there are of course some historically accurate people, places, and events to be found within the holy pages. Another form of this appeal to evidence is claiming that prophecies in the Bible came true. They will look at prophecies found in the Old Testament and claim that they came true in the New Testament even though the books were by different authors. Both of these are used as an attempt to show that the Bible has been accurate in certain areas, and therefore we can extrapolate to assume it’s accurate in general. This is poor epistemology, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make right now. What’s important is that if an apologist tries to verify the Bible’s accuracy by these means, then their worldview is not based entirely on the Bible. Rather, they are basing their worldview on evidence from the world around them, or at least they are attempting to do so. If that’s the case, then the Bible cannot be the foundation of their Christian beliefs.

A Christian could also appeal to personal experience. They’ve gone to Church and “felt the presence of God”. Or they’ve witnessed a miracle. Or they’ve heard a voice speak to them. Or perhaps they went the intellectually rigorous route of Francis Collins and saw a frozen waterfall that was super duper pretty (and therefore, God). While this is weak justification, it is still justification. And if this demonstrates why the Bible is important, then this is the foundation of their beliefs, and not the Bible.

What I suspect is most often the case, though I cannot possibly speak on behalf of any Christian, is that it is not the Bible that is truly the foundation of the Christian’s belief. Rather, it is their faith. They have been taught the Biblical stories from Birth, and know in their heart of hearts that Jesus Christ died for their sins. They know when they pray that their god is there for them. Even when they are apparently being tested through a trial in their lives, or when a doctrine doesn’t make sense to them, or the Bible seems nonsensical, they can rectify it through faith.

This was certainly the case for me. I had plenty of skeptical tendencies even as a Christian, and I knew that I should have a good reason for my beliefs. I knew that I simply couldn’t justify the Old Testament stories of the Bible, as they didn’t match historical and scientific evidence. Furthermore, I know that my good feelings from prayer and singing at Church weren’t very good reasons for justifying the existence of my god. For me, I would struggle trying to come up with good evidence for my religious position, and I would be disappointed when my reasons were weak. However, without fail, I would eventually remind myself, “that’s why they call it faith.” Since I had been raised to believe that faith was a virtue, this was satisfactory enough for me. My thoughts were always able to quickly move on to something else once I came to that conclusion.

However, I recognize that to many people, we know we have faith because of the Bible. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

For many Christians, faith is also acceptance that Jesus Christ died for their sins and gave them salvation:

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

 

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” (John 1:12)

 

“Because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” (Romans 10:9-10)

Under this model, faith is a gift from the god of Christianity, and is given once the Christian accepts Jesus’ gift. You cannot have this faith unless you accept the words of The Bible, since this is the word that tells us of Jesus’ gift of dying on the cross for our sins. Therefore, since many fundagelicals adhere to this worldview, it is actually faith that is based on the Bible, not the other way around.

While some of this may be perfectly coherent for some Christians, it will be completely backwards for others. That’s fine by me. I don’t claim to be a theologian or a Christian scholar, and I reject it altogether anyway no matter the details of the doctrine. As I stated from the beginning, I don’t care to argue over which belief is the “correct” wrong belief. The Christians are still welcome to share the ultimate foundations of their worldview in the comments below, and make their case for why it’s a good foundation.

However, I’d simply like to urge my fellow atheists to not make so many assumptions about what a Christian believes. If you’re having a conversation about their beliefs system, making assumptions hinders a productive conversation, and you should ask on a case-by-case basis. While it may be far easier to lump all Christians into the category of anyone believes the Bible literally and word-for-word, that’s not how the world works. There’s a whole spectrum of Christianity. There are even people who believe in Jesus who don’t really accept much else of the Bible, and as atheists we don’t have any ground for saying that they’re not true Christians. We are not Christians, so we don’t get to decide what a Christian is. Therefore, we can’t know what someone’s “true” justifications are for their worldview. Instead of assuming their justifications, ask about their justifications and how they go about navigating their beliefs.

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[Image: A meme featuring a person in a black shirt stating, “I’m an Atheist. Debate me”. The meme caption states, “Makes fun of people who take the Bible literally. Takes the Bible literally.”]

Perhaps this will lead to less confusion in the future. I remember one episode of the podcast where all four hosts were talking to dear friend of the show and Episcopal Reverend Alex Moreschi, who is about as far from a fundamentalist Christian you can get. His form of theology quite mapped quite closely to my former beliefs, and his beliefs seemed just as viable to me as any other form of Christianity (though, obviously, I hadn’t dedicated my education to those beliefs like he did). However, the other three hosts of the show come from a thoroughly fundamendalist evangelical background, and as such it didn’t make sense to them that a Christian could hold certain passages as non-literal. It was frustrating for them, because while Alex held the Bible as true, he didn’t appear to accept that it was literally true. They’d ask him about parts of the Bible that when I was a Christian I never would have accepted, such as the creation story, and become more and more baffled when Alex didn’t hold too much credence in them either. My other three cohosts left the episode entirely confused, but my experience of the ordeal was fairly routine, and I was just hearing yet another perspective on the Christian faith.

Were I to have that conversation again, I would like to ask Alex what he believed and why, rather than holding him to a preconceived model. Instead of asking him what he felt about evolution or Creationism, I would like to ask him what was important to him. From there, I would follow up based on what he says, and learn about his worldview based on him. I would love to have another recorded conversation to ask him about the foundations of his faith, and why he holds those foundations, instead of assuming a foundation and sticking to it the whole time, regardless of his position.

At the moment, I don’t know his foundations, and I don’t know the foundations for the beliefs of almost any other Christian. Is it faith, or is it The Bible? Or is it something else? The answer is going to be different from person to person, and that’s just how humans work. Let’s take the time to ask, and really listen, as we learn about each other.

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6 thoughts on “What is More Foundational: The Bible, or Faith?

  1. Matt S. November 2, 2016 at 11:47 AM Reply

    Good piece. I also agree that Christians (or for that matter, any adherent of a religion of a book) need not be held to taking the entire canon literally. That approach has always struck me as something resembling a “poisoning the well” fallacy, which is both unfair and weak.

    I did think it was faith that was foundational to most denominations of Christianity (as evidenced in the Catechism, for example), with making the Bible foundational tantamount to bibliolatry, in the eyes of many. I could have that wrong though – it’s been over 20 years since I definitively lapsed.

    • prophetjerbs November 2, 2016 at 11:57 AM Reply

      Right. I do see problems with “picking and choosing”, but there are also problems with Biblical literalism. Trying to force a Christian into the latter if they don’t hold to it is not going to get the conversation anywhere. If we care about conversation, it would be fair if we actually listened to where they are coming from.

      • Matt S. November 2, 2016 at 12:01 PM

        Couldn’t agree more.

  2. Chuck Zimmerman November 2, 2016 at 2:56 PM Reply

    We have been there done that: Virginia, Act for Establishing Religious Freedom
    31 Oct. 1785Madison Papers 8:399–401

    I. Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; … Jefferson wrote this explanation in his Autobiography:” The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason & right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that it’s protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.” The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”

    • prophetjerbs November 2, 2016 at 3:01 PM Reply

      Perhaps you’d like to say something about the blog post instead?

  3. unkleE November 10, 2016 at 12:59 AM Reply

    Hi, I just stumbled on this blog post. I am a christian, but not looking for an argument, just thought I had a comment, thanks.

    I think the phrase “pick and choose” is quite emotive. I am not a fundamentalist, I base my views on all the information I have available to me, including the Bible, scientific and historical facts, my experience, etc. The facts & experience cause me to interpret and understand the Bible in certain ways, which are always adjusting to new information.

    You could call that “picking and choosing”, which has connotations of something dishonest and devious, but I think it is just adjusting to the best facts. And I think all thoughtful people do that.

    I have sympathy with non-believers who find this difficult to grasp hold of, not least because many christians come to different conclusions (we are human beings, after all!) but that should just help us all try to understand the other person before we disagree with them.

    So the Bible is part of my foundation, and that would be the same with everyone – even fundamentalists have to understand language and culture and history at least a little to read the Bible.

    Thanks.

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